"History, for Gelman, is something both deeply personal and inherently communal, just as poetry can be both politically charged and aesthetically refined. His work denounces the abuse of power at the same time as it challenges the assumption that committed art is predominantly, if not exclusively, didactic".
Juan Gelman is the most read, most influential Spanish-language poet of our times. With 30 books published, he is the winner of the Cervantes Prize (2007), the top literary honor in Spanish-language literature. He worked as a journalist and translator, spent many years exiled in Europe and Latin America, and remained an ardent critic of Argentina’s military dictatorship throughout his life. He was above all faithful to poetry as a transformative act — as the quest for a more humane society, and a way to broaden our understanding of the world through universal dialogue. The Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar said that Gelman’s work must be read “by remaining open, allowing meaning to enter other doorways than those of syntactical structure,” for “only in this way can the reader discover the reality of the poems, which is none other than the exact and literal reality of the horror and death, but also the hope, that define Argentina.” (Gelman,Unthinkable 4). His death marks not just the end of an era in poetry written in Spanish, but also the passing of a man who never forgot he was part of a family of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine — an Argentine underdog until the very end.In their piece, Victor Rodriguez Nunez and Katherine Hedden note that Gelman was a poet who aligned himself with movements for progressive and radical social change. Gelman's leftist political activism and his poetry were inseparable.
At that time, Gelman’s life and work were facing their most difficult moment. “Then came military dictatorships, civil governments, and new military dictatorships; they took away my books, my bread, my son, they made my mother despair, they threw me out of the country, killed my brothers, tortured my comrades [...]” From a young age, Gelman had been a hardworking political activist and a critical journalist. He was forced into exile for 13 years by the military dictatorship that laid waste to Argentina from 1976 to 1983, and the corrupt governments to follow. In 1976, the far right kidnapped his children, Nora Eva, 19, and Marcelo Ariel, 20, along with the latter’s wife, María Claudia Iruretagoyena, 19, who was seven months pregnant. Nora Eva would later reappear, but his son and daughter-in-law were eventually murdered, their child born in a concentration camp. The desperate search for the truth about his family’s whereabouts culminated in the appearance of his granddaughter Macarena in Uruguay in 2000, transforming Juan Gelman into one of the most relevant symbols of the struggle for human rights.
The situation became the source of a new phase in his work, where he transformed the deepest pain into some of his best poetry: Notas (1979),Carta abierta (1980), Si dulcemente (1980), Comentarios (1978-1979), Citas(1979), Hacia el sur (1981-1982), Bajo la lluvia ajena (notas al pie de una derrota) (1980), La junta luz (1982), Com/posiciones (1984-1985), Eso (1983-1984), Anunciaciones (1985), and Carta a mi madre (1984-1987).
In Carta abierta, for instance, a poem/letter written to his disappeared son, the poetic subject adopts gender markings contradictory to those ordered by social norms:
with head hung low my burning souldips a finger in your name/scrawlsyour name on the walls of night/amounting to nothing/solemnly bleeding/
soul to soul she watches you/enkindlering/opens her mother chest to cuddle you/shelter you/reunite you/undie you/tiny shoe of yours taking its first steps upon
the world’s sufferingblock tendering it/clarity trodden/water undonesince you speak so/you crackle/burn/want/give me your nevers like a true blue boy
(trans. Lisa Rose Bradford)